Family conferences are a crucial tool for strengthening family-school partnerships. And in 2020, when we have less daily contact with families, these conferences are an extra crucial time to strengthen our relationships with parents and caregivers.
Before the Conference
1. Schedule flexibly and send a reminder
In 2020, it’s not only important to be flexible with when conferences will occur, but also how and where. In addition to providing conference options at different times of the day, offer different ways conferences can occur. Some families will love to participate in video calls, but for others, a phone call or a physically distant meet-up at a playground may be preferable, so offer multiple formats. Remind families before the conference, and send them the agenda that will be guiding your conversation.
2. Create an efficient agenda and prepare materials
Conferences can be short - sometimes even just 15 minutes long! Having an agenda grounded in learning standards is a crucial step to maximize time. Leave room in the agenda for families to ask questions and express concerns and be sure to prepare the questions you plan to ask each family, and time to agree on next steps and follow-ups.
Bring anecdotes that will both warm the family’s heart and help them connect with the learning that their child is doing in the classroom. Visuals are extremely helpful for families. Collect these in advance and have them open and ready to share on your screen or printed out ready to hold up. If you’re using Kaymbu or COR Advantage, you can find these learning moments collected into the child’s portfolio. Consider sharing portfolios or documentation in advance so families have time to collect their own thoughts and questions.
3. Set up a welcoming environment
It’s always important to create a calming and nurturing environment for families. If you’re meeting with families via a video call, remember that a video call is like a home visit. Be sure to thank them for inviting you in.
If you’re meeting in a physically distant way, provide pens and paper, as well as comfortable seating. If you have bilingual parents, be prepared with a translator or a translation app. And don’t forget your own self-care! Make sure to bring water or coffee and keep snacks for between conferences.
During the Conference
1. Cultivate connections with families and build trust
This starts with empathy. Welcome families warmly, create space, and express gratitude that they have joined you and are willing to participate in their child’s learning. Families take time out of their work day and busy schedules to join a conference. Help families to feel welcome so that you can establish a connection that will last the whole school year.
Open conversations by asking families about their hopes, goals, and dreams for their child, both this school year and in life. This exercise can help you gain valuable insights into what matters to the parents and caregivers, as well as allow you to demonstrate how you are on the same team, working towards similar goals.
This connection lays the groundwork for open, honest communication and collaboration as you are both active participants in the growth and development of the child.
2. Provide the good with the “bad”
It can be uncomfortable and even personal for parents and guardians to digest information about their child’s behavioral issues, or to hear that they are working to improve in an area of their development. In an age where we strive for perfection, we forget how important it is to let our children make “mistakes” and how normal it is for them to have tantrums, to fight or not want to share.
Remind families that these are normal behaviors and tell them what you are doing at school to scaffold their development in these areas. Provide families with strategies for how they can help at home. Share articles or excerpts that they can take home for reference. For every “area for growth,” provide an “area of strength.” Present anecdotes that highlight the child’s strengths and talk about what you are doing to nurture those strengths.
3. Agree on next steps
Whether it’s a continued engagement or a new routine, agree with the parents and caregivers on specific action steps. Outline what you will do in school and agree on what parents and caregivers will do at home. Action steps should have clear expectations and work towards the same goal. For example, families may agree to read with their child every night before bedtime. And teachers may agree to support that by sending home new books each month or helping to find digital books.
After the Conference
1. Organize your action items and follow ups
Make sure to file notes from the conference as soon as it has come to a close. Document your take-aways from the meetings so you can revisit them in the future. These takeaways can help you to thoughtfully craft lesson plans that are designed to explore children’s interests and cover the areas of growth.
2. Regularly communicate with families
Conferences are just one piece of family communication! Briefly touch base with families throughout the week to check-in and continue to strengthen the collaborative relationship that’s so important in early childhood. A quick “Hello, how’s the morning been?” is a good baseline check-in. Sending a few learning moments throughout the day or week is a great way to engage families as active participants. And acknowledging the family’s humanness by asking “how are YOU today?” can build a strong relationship and establish trust, so that next time you have a conference, your conversations can go even deeper!
About the Author:
Maranda VanDeWiele is a a former early childhood educator who worked at a Reggio-inspired Harvard-affiliated program. She has a Bachelor of Arts with a focus on creative writing and education from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and now works as a School Ambassador at Kaymbu.